Sexual Assault and Rape Went Undisciplined at Knox College

Sexual Assault and Rape Went Undisciplined at Knox College

CONTENT WARNING: rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment

 


 

A Critic investigation has revealed multiple instances of sexual assault and rape at Knox College where college leadership failed to take action despite incidents being reported to management. Critic spoke to four students who said they had been sexually attacked by fellow students during their time at Knox, ranging from drunken assaults to threats of physical violence.

Critic spoke to students who were residents of Knox between 2011 and 2017 who described Knox’s culture as “sexist”. They said Knox’s initiations and traditions created a “sense of entitlement” amongst male students that led to a pattern of sexually inappropriate behaviour toward female students.

 

Sexual Assault “Brushed Off” by College Leadership

In 2016, Anne* said she experienced sexual harassment from another student at Knox, and

when she took her complaints to the Deputy Master at the time “she brushed off everything I had to say”.

Anne said a male student “tried to kiss me multiple times even though he knew I had a boyfriend. One of the times he invited himself into my room while I was on the phone. He pushed me down on the bed and kissed me”.

“He would sit outside his room, which was next to the dining hall, and wait so he could sit next to me at meals and say rude things. Due to tradition we had to stay at the table until everyone had finished eating.”

“He would follow me to and from Uni. When my boyfriend came to stay he had a friend threaten to throw me down the stairs and beat up my boyfriend because he said I was bullying him.”

When Anne reported the alleged incidents, the Deputy Master “made excuses for the student; she implied that I was bullying him and leading him on. I was crushed by this and let my parents know what was going on. The student's behaviour had gotten so bad that I didn't feel safe walking to Uni, dining in the hall and even showering. My mum tried to get in contact with the Deputy Master multiple times and she kept dodging the calls,” said Anne.

“When the Deputy Master finished up her time at Knox, she did not pass on any information to the Master about what was going on,” said Anne. Anne approached the Master about the harassment individually and in a group, but “he was still under the impression it was an isolated issue.”

Anne said the second years and management created a sexist culture at Knox which “not only let incidences of sexual harassment happen but also allowed it to go on unnoticed.”

“It seemed as if the reputation of the college mattered more to them than the comfort and safety of their students.”

 

‘Upsetting’ Handling of Sexual Violence by College Leadership

In 2016, Alexis* went to the Deputy Master with a group of other girls with a list of allegations of sexual assault and harassment against one particular male student. No discipline was taken against this “serial sexual harasser,” she said. “The guy stayed in the hall for months making everyone feel unsafe.”

One submaster (Knoxspeak for RA) Critic spoke to said poor handling of sexual violence upset them more than Knox’s intense initiations. The submaster said when the Master would resolve sexual harassment claims “his approaches were tone-deaf.”

Master Graham Redding gave survivors a spread of options, from getting an apology from the student or having a sit-down mediation to investigation by the college and potential removal from University.

Redding would not comment on specific instances of sexual assault, but said providing “information about options for action and determin[ing] whether or not they wish to report to Police” followed “the same sexual misconduct policy and procedures as the University of Otago.” The person or persons making allegations are “treated with dignity and respect,” are enabled to “maintain control” and “determine their own needs and how to meet those needs,” said Redding.

However, the submaster said putting the decision of discipline on the survivor was problematic in the Knox context. In their year as a submaster, they said students only chose the apology or mediation options.  “No student wants to rock the boat, Knox is a close-knit community.”

A University of Otago spokeswoman said “the University endorses an approach which involves those who make complaints about sexual misconduct being involved in decisions about how to proceed.” But, she said “while affected parties are advised on their options, the University would never expect a person affected by sexual misconduct to make a determination on a penalty such as exclusion if misconduct was found to have occurred.”

One student said there was a “decent bit of blind eye being turned” by the College leadership. “If you were messy and obvious you got a drinking ban, one guy got kicked out of the college [in my year] for smoking weed in his room, but it was kind of ‘ignorance is bliss’ [for more serious offences like sexual harassment],” they said.

Alexis remembers college management couldn't catch an alleged sexual harasser “doing anything wrong on the hall cameras, so in their eyes it didn't happen. Most of this guy’s behaviour was entering girls’ bedrooms and harassing them, so naturally it wouldn't be on camera”.

The student was allegedly kicked out of Knox in the end, but for an unrelated disciplinary reason. Alexis said lack of action about sexual assault or harassment contributed to a culture where she felt like ‘lads’ could get away with anything.

 

Resident Felt Silenced Through Two Sexual Assaults

Talia* said she was sexually assaulted and raped whilst at Knox in 2015 and 2016, but felt no one would listen if she spoke up.

Talia applied to Knox because she was “keen to live in a pretty building” but “knew nothing about Knox beforehand.” She was 17 and had “never been around any lads before, let alone a huge group of ridiculously entitled lads” so “I wasn’t equipped to deal with them.” She said she “took everything said to me at face value” so when a second year guy asked where her room was, she told him and thought nothing of it.

Then one night she woke up to him “taking off his pants in my room and then making out with me,” she said. “I froze up and couldn’t say no, luckily I was on my period and he got the idea,” she said.

Talia told her second year friends what happened and they said “‘yeah he does that sometimes, he’s a good guy though it’s no big deal, you shouldn’t judge him off that”. They told her to laugh it off.

“So far as anyone was concerned this was normal,” she said. “The general consensus was just to get over it and learn very quickly about the warning signs of that kind of thing.” So she didn’t tell any of the College leadership.

In her second year at Knox, Talia was “raped after a Knox event.”

“I got drunk at a Knox event and a guy walked me home, he came into my room and I wasn’t too sure what was going on and again I froze up and felt like I couldn’t say no or kick [him] out as I had let him into my room. I just remember thinking ‘God I hope this is over soon so I can go to sleep’.”

She told him to stop, but “he kept going.”

“For both situations I know people at Knox would say it’s my fault or that it’s normal to have sex misadventures but no big deal.” For a long time she believed this. She said she blamed herself because “I got myself into that situation through my own naivety” and “I should’ve known the dangers of what could happen.”

“The only reason I figured out what happened was rape was because I talked to someone else who wasn’t at Knox and she was like ‘what the fuck is going on?’” It was only then that Talia realised that even if girls “got into those situations, it doesn’t meant guys were allowed to take advantage of them.”

Because no one at Knox thought her experiences were a big deal, she never spoke up about the rape to the submasters or College management. “I was so worried about people judging me and [the one female submaster] seemed like the kind of person who would judge you,” she said. “I didn’t feel the [female] deputy master was approachable.”

“My previous experience told me that if this happens it’s your fault and no one will help you,” she said. “Who the fuck was I going to tell? Nobody gave a shit.”

“I would get panic attacks and I couldn’t leave my room for days because I was afraid of that sort of thing happening again.” Even when she could barely leave her room to go to the bathroom, “nobody noticed.”

“If I thought before that nobody cared, this just reiterated it.”

Talia said she had “never fully experienced rape culture until I went to Knox. It is alive and well and so hurtful to everybody involved.” She said Knox “victimises people who aren’t prepared for it. You shouldn’t have to prepare to be bullied and potentially taken advantage of.”

“People often joked Knox is a cult. As much as that’s a laughable statement, it’s somewhat true that a form of brainwashing goes on. You see what’s happening and part of you knows it’s wrong but you’re told by everybody around you that it’s okay and not to make a fuss.”

“There are lovely people at Knox,” said Talia, “but one small group holds the power and feel they can do whatever they want to everybody else, and everybody else feels like they don’t matter enough to say no.”

 

“Casual Misogyny” Creates “Toxic” Environment for Residents

‘Knox is what you make it’ is a common sentiment at the College. One resident Critic spoke to who loved Knox said “people can be a little bit sensitive over things that are not worth making a fuss over […] you want to go to the College with an open mind, if you don’t get involved you’re going to have a shit time, it’s what you make of it.”

But, another resident said the ‘Knox is what you make of it’ motto gave “the idea that it was your fault if you had a negative experience.”

Master Graham Redding said the culture at Knox has “come a long way over the last few years.” Although he admitted “there is still some way to go” he “strongly refute[d]” the allegation that Knox’s culture was misogynistic.

Lizzy* enjoyed some of Knox’s traditions, but said she hated the “casual misogyny” she experienced there in 2017.

“In the first few weeks, I was getting ready for St. Patrick’s Day with some girlfriends. We were near a group of guys who we noticed were putting up numbers with their hands. We clicked they were ranking us. I was like ‘holy shit that’s so gross’”. 

Another time, she was “lying in bed with a girlfriend, just chilling. A guy friend got into bed with us, just as friends, but then he started touching me, like scratching my back under my shirt and pulling my undies up into a g-string. I was paralysed with shock. I wish I’d been able to stand up and say something, but I thought that if I did people would call me a prude.”

She said guys she was friends with would start groping her every time she got drunk, but then would say ‘don’t worry about it’ or become hostile if approached about it later.

She felt it was her fault for not “enjoying the attention. There were these expectations that you just have to conform to the culture, and enjoy it.”

Lizzy found Knox's culture “really toxic.” She felt she had to constantly be on her guard. “I even locked my door whenever I went to the toilet,” she said. “I felt lucky that I escaped the worst. I wasn’t raped or assaulted. I just got used to being scared or uncomfortable all the time. I shouldn’t feel lucky.”

“Knox was not a good environment for young impressionable minds,” she said.

 

A Tradition of Sexism

Since it was founded in 1909, Knox College has gained a reputation for having a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture and a collection of initiations and traditions, which are passed on year to year by the second-year returners that make up a third of the college’s 262 students.

Knox’s traditions are a draw-card for many prospective students. One student Critic spoke to said initiations and traditions made their experience at the College. “I didn’t put Knox as my first choice college, but I’m so glad I got in. I don’t think I could have had a better time anywhere else; there was always stuff to get involved in.”

However, many former residents told Critic only certain people had this experience. One said they “felt invisible” because they weren’t into drinking or making themselves sexually available. “I almost had to apologise for being there. Anytime [older students] paid you attention the thought was that you should feel lucky.”

Former residents said initiations and traditions were a key contributor to an unsafe environment for women. Many events are run by the second year Student Exec, who try and “raise the bar” every year, said one resident.

The events tend to involve lots of alcohol and nudity which made it “easy for all this other gross stuff to happen,” said another resident.

An early initiation is ‘White Shirt Night’, which takes place at a flat party hosted by a previous Knox resident. In previous years, “first years were told to put moisturiser on their faces and then got drawn on. Guys would write poor things in vivid in inappropriate locations on girls, like on their cleavage and stuff,” said a former submaster.

Several student groups were traditionally formed early in the Knox year.

One was a group of first year girls chosen by second years for being promiscuous. In recent years this group have been called the ‘Prudes’, ‘Dusters’, ‘Crabs’ and ‘Thirsties’.

One resident said “basically these girls were called out for their sex lives, and once they were given the name, guys were encouraged to try and pull girls from that group.”

Knox Master Graham Redding said he had “categorical assurance from the current student executive that this [group] no longer exists.” Critic is aware it was present until at least 2016.

A group that still exists is the ‘Animals’ who one student said are selected by second years for being able to “sink their piss and party.” They attend an ex-residents’ flat party early in the year for an initiation. Redding said “drinking is not the sole purpose of the gathering." 

But, the ‘Animals’ initiation “involves drinking for the most part,” and “gross stuff like beer bongs off butt-cracks and bodies,” said another student.

Redding said the ‘Animals’ initiation “is not endorsed by college management” but they do “seek assurances from the organiser(s) that the University’s Code of Conduct will be upheld (no hazing or initiation), that participation is consensual,” and hosts exercise responsibility. He said “during my time as Master of Knox College I have not received any complaints in regard to this event. Nor have I been made aware of any acts of nudity associated with it.”

Critic has video evidence that at an early Knox flat party, the Animals were made to strip on a roof in front of other Knox residents.

A former submaster said “you can call it hazing for sure.”

Until about three years ago, on Sunday nights, after the Master and Submasters left after Sunday dinner, the Exec read the Weather Report, which was “a coded list of all the people who’d slept with who that week.” Master Redding said he knows this tradition “no longer occurs because the members of the Senior Common Room […] now have their post-dinner coffee in the common room next to the dining hall where the student president addresses the Knox residents, and we can hear what is being said.”

Former residents said that a list of names was read out at a Knox gathering listing how many people each person in the hall had hooked up at least until O-Week 2017.

One student said, “this seemed funny at the time, but looking back now it's pretty problematic; it was like a badge of honour if you had hooked up with more people than anyone else. I recall in my second year, some guy getting a shout out in front of everyone for having slept with the most people.”

Date Night was described as another “problematic” tradition.

Date Night is where the “Supers” (a group Critic were told has been discontinued as of 2018) or the nearest selection of “popular” second year boys choose the most attractive first year girls to go on dates with them. One former resident said guys were “definitely trying to get girls drunk to get them back to their rooms.” “Date Night was always fucking dodgy as fuck,” they said.

Another resident said “the tradition originally started years ago where it was a wholesome thing that the girls were taken on a date; now it's basically where second year guys pick a first year girl [...] gets her super drunk and sleep with her. It's pretty much a vehicle for the second year guys to have power over the freshers.”

The inverse is called Cougar Night, where second year girls pick out boys for dates. In one year “second year girls made first year boys send strip tease photos” which they all looked at together. One former submaster said it was “all fucking downhill from there.”

The submaster said the “College knows about Date Night and fucking hates it.” Indeed, Redding said “we are especially concerned to make sure there is no sexually predatory behaviour associated with these events. We have seen a dramatic improvement in the tone, intention and naming of these events over the last couple of years. This year, for example, the terms Date Night and Cougar Night were not used.”

At the end of the year, the Knox Exec give out awards. Nominations are received for positions with nominees’ consent, said Redding. But students said some of the awards were problematic. In recent years awards have been given to the couple who have the loudest sex, the second year guy who got with the most first year girls, and the girl with the “biggest tits” got given an enormous bra by the girl who received the award the previous year. There is also an award called the “Knox Bike”, given to the girl who has had sex with, or ‘been ridden’, by the most guys and “Bike Lock” for the equivalent guy.

Redding said the current Knox Exec assured him the ‘Loudest Couple’ and ‘Biggest Tits’ awards no longer exist. The titles ‘Bike’ and ‘Bike Lock’ “will be subject to review,” said Redding, as “the titles have connotations that, in my view, trivialise intimate sexual relations and are at odds with where Knox is heading.” Redding confirmed that Knox still gives out the  awards 'Bike' and 'Bike Lock'.

Who plays at the billiards table also indicated the College’s “casual misogyny,” said several former residents. During Sunday dinner, students sent notes up to the President about the hook-ups in the college. After the upper management left, the guys who had hooked up with girls got together to play an informal game of billiards. The girl who hooked up with the losing guy “would get bathed [and have] three rubbish bins filled with ice water tipped on them,” said a former resident.

In 2012, the rules changed so that girls could play billiards, but only if they were invited by a guy. It was only at the end of 2015 that the rules changed again to allow girls to play whenever they wanted. But, in 2017, residents were still constantly trying to ban girls from playing pool at the billiards table. “It was supposedly a funny joke but it’s not really that funny,” said one resident.

Former residents said these “sexist” traditions created a “sense of entitlement” among male students that was mostly ignored by College management. “Sexism isn’t a culture. It’s just shitty,” said one former resident.

 

College Leadership Working Toward Change, but Students Want More

After a 2011 Review of Knox College by the Presbyterian Church and the University of Otago, “a process of cultural change” was triggered at Knox that included changes to governance, leadership, management and staffing levels, said Redding.

When Redding was hired in 2015 he said this process “was far from complete.” He said he he has spent time gaining trust of the Knox College Student Club (KCSC) and the student body to create “collaborative and incremental change,” rather than imposing a “stricter regime” that would generate “resentment and disaffection” that could strengthen “patterns of behaviour that were, at best, controversial and, at worst, continued to compromise student wellbeing and safety.”

Some of the problematic personnel have left over the last several years and Redding said improvements in measures like academic results, student survey results and application rates as well as anecdotal evidence from students, staff and College Fellows, suggest that “progress is being made” to change the tone of the college.

Now, when students arrive at the College, they are presented with a comprehensive handbook on student safety. Sub-masters undergo 10 days of training and, in 2019, returners also underwent a bystander workshop with Te Whare Tāwharau before first years arrived which focused on using “returners’ experience to reduce potential sexual harm at Knox and beyond the college,” said Redding.

Redding said two thirds of Knox first years completed a survey at the end of O-Week 2019 and 98% said they did not feel unsafe during that time, which was a similar result to 2018.

But, he acknowledged “there is still work to do.”

Students echoed this. One 2017 resident said the submasters were more helpful than management, as they were pretty aware of what was going on and mostly tried to their best to make things safe. But “whenever we did complain to management, [they] had a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude and wouldn't do anything about it,” they said.

One former resident said “it would be good if the Master and Deputy Master were a bit more informed. There are things that they don’t know.”

Lizzy*, another 2017 resident, said she would “like to see disgusting traditions end as they’re derogatory for everyone involved” but are just backed by students because of ‘tradition’. As another resident put it; “Knoxies will do mental gymnastics to preserve something for no good reason.”

She said she hoped other “people could step into shoes of people who had a rough time, and think about how we all have different experiences.” “Knox residents are smart people, they should be able to recognise that their behaviour and jokes are not okay in 2019. They need to realise they have to step up their game.”

 “Things can change and that can be really good.”

 

*Not their real name

 


 

If you or anyone you know has been affected by sexual violence, support is available:

Te Whare Tāwharau - Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Centre - +64 3 479 3790, or +0800 479 379 or text: +6421 278 3795, email: tewharetawharau@otago.ac.nz or walk-in at 5 Leith Bank, North Dunedin, between 10am and 4pm Monday to Friday during semester

Rape Crisis Dunedin – 03 4741592

Rape Crisis – 0800 883 300 (for support after rape or sexual assault)

Shakti Crisis Line – 0800 742 584 (for migrant or refugee women living with family violence)

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Student Health Otago – 03 479 8212

Mirror Counselling Service (for ages 3 to 19) - 03 479 2970

Thrive Te Pae Ora (for ages 12 to 19) - 0800 292 988

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2019.
Posted 12:34am Friday 15th March 2019 by Esme Hall and Charlie OíMannin.